The Annotated No Child Left Behind Waiver Conversation

I’m not opposed to a new round of waivers on No Child Left Behind, but the devil is in the details.  Unfortunately, the details seem to be getting short shrift lately in favor of the same talking points.  To wit, let’s take a look at today’s NYT story on the forthcoming Duncan waiver proposal.  Here it is (mostly) annotated with text from the article in itals.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has announced that he will unilaterally override the centerpiece requirement of the No Child Left Behind school accountability law, that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Well, it’s not really 100 percent, more like 92 percent or so, and it’s not 2014 in practice but really several years later. And in practice for a school to make “adequate yearly progress” often only 6 or 7 in 10 of its students need to be passing a test at the proficient level right now.  And, to be proficient doesn’t mean a perfect score on a test, often more like getting half the questions on a test right.  That all makes it sound too reasonable though. Besides, those are details!  Nothing but details!

Mr. Duncan told reporters that he was acting because Congress had failed to rewrite the Bush-era law, which he called a “slow-motion train wreck.”

This is the same Mr. Duncan who a few months ago predicted that 82 percent of schools would not make “adequate yearly progress” this year.  That hasn’t happened, as many predicted it wouldn’t at the time. He’s the S&P of AYP!  Still, a lot of schools are struggling to meet performance targets.  That’s surprising, why, in a country where 8 percent of low-income Americans can expect to earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 24 and that has high school dropout rates for minorities approaching 50 percent?  But that’s context!  Nothing but context!

Conservatives said it could inflame relations with Republicans in the House who want to reduce, not expand, the federal footprint in education. But Mr. Duncan and White House officials described their plan as offering crucial relief to state and local educators as the No Child law, which President George W. Bush signed in 2002, comes into increasing conflict with more recent efforts to raise academic standards.

Actually, both these things can be true at the same time.  No one expected No Child Left Behind to be in place for a decade and waivers do encroach on Congress’ turf.

Under the current law, every school is given the equivalent of a pass-fail report card each year, an evaluation that administration officials say fails to differentiate among chaotic schools in chronic failure, schools that are helping low-scoring students improve, and high-performing suburban schools that nonetheless appear to be neglecting some low-scoring students.

Whoa…The law (and some subsequent waivers during the Bush Administration) actually allows for some differentiation, the states have just done a lousy job actually doing it.  And the two major aspects of the law’s accountability system that didn’t differentiate – public school choice and free tutoring for students in persistently low-performing schools – are already waiver eligible and their sharp edges are long gone.  And if you’re worried about suburban schools that are neglecting some low-scoring students the last thing you want to do is ease up on accountability – what do you think this whole rhetorical push about “labeling” schools is all about anyway?  People in “good” suburban schools don’t want to hear about achievement gaps and the leaders of those school systems are responding to that.

About 38,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools fell short of their test-score targets under the federal law last year, and Mr. Duncan has predicted that number would rise to 80,000 this year.

Skeptics said Mr. Duncan’s predictions were exaggerated, but a huge number of schools are falling short under No Child’s school rating system. Eighty-nine percent of Florida’s public schools, for instance, missed federal testing targets, although 58 percent of Florida schools earned an A under the state’s own well-regarded grading system.

Skeptics said? Well actually there is data and the numbers are nowhere near the Administration’s claim.  Besides, is Florida really the most illustrative example? Most states are not Florida, which is a genuine national reform-leader.  Go next door to Alabama, for instance.  But that’s data, nothing but data!

When Mr. Duncan sketched an outline of the administration’s waiver plan in June, Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the House education committee, demanded that Mr. Duncan show by what legal authority he would override the federal law. Mr. Duncan responded by citing provisions of the No Child law itself that give the education secretary broad waiver powers.

Oh man, this is complicated.  Who is right?  How will we ever get to the bottom of this?  If only the law actually said something about this that could be shared with readers.

For a waiver to be approved, they said, states would need to show that they were adopting higher standards under which high school students were “college- and career-ready” at graduation, were working to improve teacher effectiveness and evaluation systems based on student test scores and other measures, were overhauling the lowest-performing schools, and were adopting locally designed school accountability systems to replace No Child’s pass-fail system.

Those requirements match the criteria the administration used last year in picking winning states in its two-stage Race to the Top grant competition. Ms. Barnes said states would not be competing against one another with their waiver applications. But the similarity irked critics.

“It sounds like they’re trying to do a backdoor Round 3 of Race to the Top, and that’s astonishing,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. He called Mr. Duncan’s plan “a dramatically broad reading of executive authority.”

Conservatives are “irked” with an Obama policy?  OK, rare and clearly newsworthy.  By the way, was AEI so outraged when former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings actually went outside the law and created new law as part of her waiver package?  I recall silence but please correct me if I’m wrong about that?  Besides, I thought these guys liked a strong executive.  Anyway, the details on the Duncan plan are not public yet but *so far* it sounds like he’s only proposing to use policies that are on the books because of a previous Congressional authorization (in ARRA) not making up new law.  But don’t let that get in the way of a good talking point!

The plan appears likely to gain broad support from state education officials, however. More than a dozen states have already asked the department for changes to their No Child school accountability plans, or are about to do so, said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Many states feel that we need major changes in the law, because it’s identifying such an outlandish number of schools that it’s losing credibility,” he said.

Wait, the states want flexibility and a way out from some of the accountability?  No way! Unprecedented!

The law allowed states to adopt local academic standards and determine their own passing scores on tests after it took effect in 2002. The requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 encouraged lower standards, which make it easier for more students to score as proficient. Since early 2010, however, more than 40 states have agreed to adopt higher standards, and the 2014 deadline is complicating their efforts, Mr. Duncan said.

Actually, when the Fordham Foundation went on a hunting expedition to document this “race to the bottom” all they found was a “walk to the middle” in some states.  And how exactly is the 2014 deadline complicating state efforts to adopt higher standards since there is no assessment in place yet for these new standards and still no formal governance arrangement in place for what it means to adopt them in the first place?

In Tennessee, for instance, 91 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level in math under the state’s old standards, but under new, tougher standards adopted recently, the proportion plummeted to 34 percent.

Wait.  That makes it sound as though there is a reason schools aren’t meeting performance targets, I’m completely confused now.

“The current law serves as a disincentive to higher standards, rather than as an incentive,” Mr. Duncan said.

That is probably true, actually, but would it kill someone to explain why?

2 Replies to “The Annotated No Child Left Behind Waiver Conversation”

  1. The NCLB debate is much to do about nothing.

    Apparently someone did the one thing that most good organizations are told never to do, never look in your storage closet.

    Someone was rummaging around the storage closet at the USDOE and found a box marked NCLB. After a quick wiki search to discover what NCLB stood for, it was determined that this legislation was a good idea. Perhaps it could be an even better idea if it were presented with the banner: “NCLB: Under new management.”

    NCLB is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. It also provides for greater accountability. If nothing else, Washington D.C. loves policy that professes to improve education for inner city students at failing schools. Can anyone be against providing students with a better education?

    After dusting off the NCLB binder the USDOE felt a compelling need to push for its renewal, even in a watered down version with waivers.

    The tragic flaws in implementing NCLB

    Why did NCLB fail so miserably the first time? Perhaps it was because the agents responsible for its implementation, reporting, and enforcement were the very people that would have been impacted by its policies. Akin to putting the “fox in charge of the hen house,” NCLB was destined to falter badly.
    Read the 2009 Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights report in which the NEA was called out for impeding NCLB? The report stated that “at times, the union opposition to reform had become vehement. The National Education Association (NEA) advised its local affiliates to negotiate the following language into new teacher contracts:

    “Without the agreement of the [NEA], the Employer shall take no action
    to comply with [NCLB]…that has an adverse impact on any bargaining

    No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a federal grant-in-aid law designed to improve education for disadvantaged children. If school districts or their employees “take no action to comply with NCLB” they are violating the law.

    Let me repeat, they are violating the law.

    Were there any repercussions? Beuller, Beuller, Beuller?

    What makes the USDOE think the environment has changed? Was it the NEA Conference in May in which the NEA listed the “13 things we hate about Arne Duncan.”
    In the beltway, NCLB makes sense. It is great policy that calls for accountability and helps children. Outside the beltway, it is an ineffectual nuisance. In the worst case scenario, what happens to any District, or school, that fails miserably? Does their funding get cut? No, because lawyers sue Districts and States under equal protection act clauses claiming that the underserved are being denied access to a quality education (Regarless of whether they were receiving it before). It doesn’t matter that the funds are being spent on ineffective teachers, the case is made that you are taking the food of knowledge “from the mouths of children in need.”

    NCLB never had any “teeth,” so let’s not pretend that it will grow any.

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